GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — For hours on end, Moen Abu Aish digs through the rubble of destroyed homes in search of survivors of Israeli airstrikes, a huge and desperate task complicated by the lack of crucial supplies and the extent of destruction in the Gaza Strip.
As the 58-year-old rescuer and his colleagues try to remove lifeless bodies from the concrete and twisted metal left where residential blocks once stood, the death toll continues to rise. The Gaza Ministry of Health has reported that the Israeli bombardment—begun after an unprecedented bloody attack by Hamas against Israel on October 7—has killed more than 2,700 Palestinians, many of them women and children.
But many more Palestinians have died than official figures show, and it is believed that 1,200 people, including about 500 minorsare still trapped under the rubble waiting for rescue or for their bodies to be recovered, according to health authorities, who based their estimates on the help calls received.
“Many times doctors say they hear victims screaming but they can’t do anything about it”said Mohammed Abu Selmia, general director of Shifa hospital, Gaza’s largest medical center.
The dozens of victims buried under destroyed buildings are a reflection of the difficulties of rescuers trying to save lives in Gaza, without access to internet or cell phone networks, while fuel runs out and under constant air strikes.
Israel imposed a full siege on Gaza after the Hamas attack and cut off the strip’s access to water, fuel and power. Health authorities have warned that without humanitarian aid, hospitals and emergency services will soon collapse. Hospitals that operate with emergency generators say they have fuel left for a day or two at most.
“The destruction is so intense (that) there are hundreds of dead under the rubble as we speak”said Mahmoud Basal, spokesman for the Palestinian Civil Defense, which provides emergency services, as his voice broke and he tried to hold back tears. “Where are the Arab countries? Where is the rest of the world? We beg you, save us from this madness.”
At dawn on Monday, Israeli planes hit the Civil Defense headquarters in Gaza City, killing seven paramedics preparing for a rescue mission, according to the Interior Ministry. Widely circulated videos after the impact showed doctors, shocked and exhausted, huddled in the back of their bloody ambulance with their hands on their heads.
“They attacked an ambulance center”one lamented, with a strained voice. “There are no weapons. There are no militiamen. There is nothing, nothing but civilians.”
The Israeli military did not immediately comment on the attack, but in the past it has accused Hamas militants of using hospitals and rescue services as cover. It claims to only attack locations and infrastructure used by Hamas and other militant groups.
Since this war began, another 10 doctors have died on the job, according to the Ministry of Health.
“I’m terrified all the time, of course I am. I’m human”Abu Aish said from Al Awda hospital in northern Gaza, where doctors this week rejected the Israeli army’s order to evacuate. “I see the worst things one could imagine.”
Like most medical staff, Abu Aish has spent the last few days in the hospital’s ambulance bay, sleeping for a few hours before returning to his hard work. The huge explosions that echoed through the northern Jabaliya refugee camp, where she lives, were bad enough.
What made them worse is not knowing what happened to their loved ones.
He has not spoken to his family in five days, since Israeli bombing destroyed two of the three main cellular communication lines in Gaza last week.
“I miss them so much it hurts.”he said of his seven children and 10 grandchildren. “But this is my mission. I respect her”.
At the hospital, after the roar of nearby explosions, calls for help come. Abu Aish drives as far as he can in the ambulance and jumps off when the roads are so raised they are unusable. His team runs in the opposite direction of the panicking families to reach ruined houses on foot with little more than flashlights, shovels and other basic tools such as picks, saws, hoes and blowtorches to cut metal bars.
Rescuers in reflective suits and white helmets are missing excavators, ladders and heavy machinery, a result of the blockade imposed by Israel and Egypt in 2007 to prevent Hamas from digging tunnels and rearming. Abu Aish often uses his bare hands to remove pieces of concrete mixed with the personal belongings and mementos of the building’s inhabitants.
But as they work, they hear bombing in the distance. Another block of flats demolished. More people who urgently need your help.
Residents say it often takes hours for rescuers to arrive at the scene of an attack and search for victims. By then, the chances of finding more survivors are slim.
Ali Ahad, a 37-year-old Gaza City resident, said that when airstrikes destroyed the residential building next door, rescuers never arrived.
He and his friends ran outside in their slippers, searched through the rubble, and tried to pull blood-covered men and women out of the ruins using blankets. When they saw an ambulance speeding down the street towards the Shifa hospital, they chased it, banging on the windows to make it stop and find a space in the vehicle for their neighbors.
“There are people like us using our hands, and we have zero experience in these things”said. “There is no infrastructure. “There is no capacity”.
Rescuers say they are trying to save as many lives as they can. But at any moment, they might have to save themselves too.
Among the 10 doctors killed in the last week were four Palestinian Red Crescent workers. Wednesday’s airstrikes hit their ambulances in two separate locations.
Three of those killed that day were waiting to evacuate civilians from Jabaliya. “That loss traumatized me,” said his colleague Salem Abu Al-Khair. As he spoke from the ambulance center, the noise of air raids could be heard in the background.
“Even during this interview they are bombarding us”said. “That is the level of danger”.
Good news is rare for Gaza doctors. On Thursday, after the airstrikes in Jabaliya, Abu Aish found a mother hugging a small child from the rubble. The mother had died, along with the rest of her relatives in the collapsed building.
But the child, who was no more than three years old, was alive.
Abu Aish pulled him out of the rubble and took him to the ambulance. He was covered in dirt, but completely unharmed, he said.
“Those moments give me the will to continue”said. “That’s my job, I never want to let a single kid like that die.”